ARTICLE: The Feedback Fallacy
Updated: May 1
Recently, the discussion on how to get employees to improve has taken on new intensity. The experiment in “radical transparency” at Bridgewater Associates and the "encouraging harsh feedback" and "intense and awkward" real-time 360s culture at Netflix are two examples of the belief that the way to increase performance in companies is through rigorous, frequent, candid, pervasive, and often critical feedback. In a recent HBR.org article, Marcus Buckingham and Ashley Goodall discuss whether this approach is effective and the right way to help colleagues excel.
The search for ways to give and receive better feedback assumes that feedback is always useful—but when we ask how we can help each person thrive and excel, we find that the answers take us in a different direction. Telling people what steps to follow or what factual knowledge they’re lacking can be useful. However, feedback is about telling people what we think of their performance and how they should do it better—whether they’re giving an effective presentation, leading a team, or creating a strategy. The research is clear on this: Telling people what we think of their performance doesn’t help them thrive and excel, and telling people how we think they should improve actually hinders learning.
Underpinning the current conviction that feedback is an unalloyed good are three theories that the business world commonly accept as truths:
Our theory of the source of truth: Other people are more aware than you are of your weaknesses, and the best way to help you, therefore, is for them to show you what you cannot see for yourself.
Our theory of learning: The process of learning is like filling up an empty vessel: You lack certain abilities you need to acquire, so your colleagues should teach them to you.
Our theory of excellence: Great performance is universal, analyzable, and describable, and once defined, can be transferred from one person to another, regardless of who each individual is. Hence you can, with feedback about what excellence looks like, understand where you fall short of this ideal and then strive to remedy your shortcomings.
What these three theories have in common is self-centeredness: They take our own expertise and what we are sure is our colleagues’ inexpertise as truth and assume that my way is the best and only way. But research reveals that none of these theories is true, and the more we depend on them, and the more technology we base on them, the less learning and productivity we will get from others.
The right way to help colleagues excel
Look for outcomes. Excellence is an outcome, so take note of an effective outcome, which will stop the flow of work for a moment and pull your colleague’s attention back toward something they just did that really worked.
Replay your instinctive reactions. Don't just tell someone how well she’s performed or how good they are—you are by no means the authority on what objectively good performance is, and instinctively they know this. Instead, describe what you experienced when their moment of excellence caught your attention.
Never lose sight of your highest-priority interrupt. If you see something go off the rails—the instinct will kick in to stop everything to tell someone what they did wrong and what they need to do to fix it. But remediating inhibits learning. Rather, if you see somebody doing something that really works, stopping and dissecting it with them is your highest-priority interrupt because it helps their understanding of what excellence looks and feels like, helping them learn and grow and get better.
Explore the present, past, and future. When people ask for feedback on their performance or what they might need to fix to get promoted, try asking what three things are working for them now, what they have done that worked in the past, and what do they already know they need to do/what they already know works in this situation?
How to give people feedback is one of the hottest topics in business today. The arguments for radical candor and unvarnished and pervasive transparency imply that only the finest and bravest of us can face these truths, that those of us who recoil at the thought of working in a climate of continual judgment are condemned to mediocrity, and that as leaders our ability to look our colleagues in the eye and lay out their faults is a measure of our integrity. But we humans do not do well when someone whose intentions are unclear tells us where we stand, how good we “really” are, and what we must do to fix ourselves. We excel only when people who know us and care about us tell us what they experience and what they feel, and in particular when they see something within us that really works. Read the extended article on HBR.org here.